Better than you are, boyo, Surreal thought as she watched Rainier limp to the chair nearest the sofa. “I’m all right.”

“The footman said he had to check and see if you were feeling up to seeing visitors today.” Rainier winced as he got himself settled.

“Should I ask Helton to bring in some coffee for you?” Surreal asked. “Or there’s brandy if you prefer.”

“What are you drinking?”

“Healing brew.” She watched the timer. Almost done.

“Then you’re not all right,” Rainier snapped.

She removed the tea ball and put it in the little bowl on the tray. She poured a cup of the brew and sat back—and wondered how much of the anger suddenly filling the room was on her behalf.

“Turns out my lungs are more vulnerable to cold weather because of that backlash spell. Or the backlash spell made them more vulnerable to the poison, which has made them more vulnerable to cold weather.” She shrugged. “So after Jaenelle got done snarling at me for not mentioning that my lungs still burned, she made up this brew, which I’m drinking three times a day for a few more days. Then it’s once a day for the rest of this winter.”

“You also fatigue easily, don’t you?” Rainier said. “That’s why there was a question about whether you wanted visitors.”

It was tempting to make light of all of this. After all, she was healing. But he had been in that house with her, and he deserved better than a light answer.

“Yes, I still fatigue easily. And it’s humiliating to admit, but I’ll need to take a nap this afternoon because I was out most of the morning shopping.”

“Does Lucivar know about this?” Rainier asked.

She grinned. “Not yet. But I’m going to make sure he does. In fact, I’m going to make sure everyone in the family knows I fatigue easily.”

“Why . . . ?” He thought for a moment, then huffed out a laugh. “Well, I guess he’ll back down a little bit if he knows he’ll get his ass chewed by Jaenelle every time you start wheezing.”

“I hope that will be enough incentive, but you can’t count on it with Lucivar.” She wasn’t looking forward to spending the winter months in Ebon Rih. For a lot of reasons.

She drank her brew, and they sat in companionable silence for a few minutes.

When she caught Rainier eyeing the piece of berry pie, she snarled, “Mine.”

“Greedy,” he muttered.

“I’ll share the sandwich, grapes, and cheese.”

His expression told her plain enough he didn’t consider that a fair exchange, but he perked up when Helton returned with another tray that was a duplicate of her own “tray of nibbles.”

Draining her cup and setting it aside, Surreal studied the tray—and sighed. “I guess I’ll eat myself into a stupor and let Helton roll me up to my room.”

“When you’re drinking healing brews, your body burns even more fuel,” Rainier said. “You actually do need that food.”

She looked at him, her unspoken question filling the room.

He held her eyes for a moment, trying to bluff. Then he looked away, snatched his plate off the tray, and began to eat.

“Leave it alone, Surreal,” he said after the silence became strained. “As a favor to a friend, leave it alone.”

For now. But she was going to have a chat with Jaenelle and find out how bad things really were with Rainier.

“So were you just out wandering today?” Surreal asked.

“Actually I stopped by to bring you this.” Rainier called in a wrapped package and handed it to her.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “You finished your shopping?”

“Yes.”

“And you’ve got all the damn presents wrapped? Hell’s fire. If I don’t have more luck finding things to buy—and how do you buy things for a family like mine?—I may be wrapping the presents moments before I hand them out.”

His smile was brittle. “I’m usually run off my feet just before Winsol and don’t have time to shop. There’s a traditional court dance that’s only performed during Winsol. There’s always a group of people who want to brush up on the steps—and there are the young men each year who figure out that males who know that dance get a lot more attention at the parties, and they want lessons.”

“You’ll teach them again next year.”

The brittle smile turned bitter, and he said nothing.

“So you’re delivering packages early because . . . ?”

“I’m going to spend Winsol with my family.”

“Why?”

A pained laugh. “Because they felt obliged to ask me, and this year I didn’t have the excuse of being too busy to come until the last days of Winsol.”

“You can still be too busy. I’ll get some paper. We’ll make a list.”

“Surreal.”

I don’t know how to fix this, Surreal thought, hurting for him. Does anyone know how to fix this pain that’s killing the heart of who and what he is?

“Well,” Rainier said, getting to his feet. “I’d best be on my way. I have some things to do before I head to Dharo.”

She met him at the sitting room door and hugged him.

“Happy Winsol, Surreal,” he said, his voice husky.

“Happy Winsol, Rainier,” she replied, wishing she could say something more.

SIX

The day before Winsol began, Daemon walked into a sitting room in the family wing of the Hall and stopped abruptly.

“Mother Night,” he said. “Where did you find such a magnificent—and perfect—evergreen tree?”

Jaenelle grinned at him. “It did turn out well, didn’t it?”

It dazzled his eyes and tugged at his heart. Little balls of color shone among the branches, which looked like they had been given a light dusting of gold on the tips of the evergreen needles. Crystal icicles hung from the branches. And the smell . . .

Daemon frowned and walked toward the tree, baffled. The evergreen scent should be filling the room.

He touched a branch. His fingers went right through it.

“If it fooled you, it will fool anyone,” Jaenelle said.

“It’s an illusion?” He tried to touch another branch, unwilling to believe.

“Yes. I made it. Marian and I decided to limit the number of trees that the family would cut down for Winsol.”

Lucivar and I didn’t get a say in this?

He caught the tip of his tongue between his teeth. He hadn’t participated in a typical Winsol celebration here at the Hall, so maybe he wasn’t supposed to make many—or any—decisions.

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